The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
by Steve Habrat
Of the all Atomic Age science fiction films I have had the pleasure of seeing over the years, the one that has always stuck with me most was Robert Wise’s eerie plea for peace The Day the Earth Stood Still. Released in 1951, just as the Cold War was getting underway and nuclear weapons were being developed and stockpiled at an alarming rate, The Day the Earth Stood Still nudged its way to the front lines of the B-movie saucer men epics and became one of the most pivotal in the genre. While many films become a product of their time, preaching a message against a political backdrop of yesterday, The Day the Earth Stood Still manages to resonate even in this day and age. Looking at The Day the Earth Stood Still today, many may find that the special effects have not aged gracefully and Gort may look like a man in a giant rubber suit, but the otherworldly atmosphere complimented by the chilling extraterrestrial howls on the soundtrack and the fear mongering radio broadcasts playing in the background of every single scene allows the film to grip you from the very first frame. It is certainly a mature work of art for the science fiction genre, one that comes from one of the most versatile directors to ever work in Hollywood.
A sleek and shiny UFO barrels into Earth’s atmosphere and parks itself right smack dab in the middle of Washington D.C. The public, the press, and the military all flock to the UFO in the hopes of catching a glimpse of an extraterrestrial. After a while, the UFO opens up and two figures, Klaatu (Played by Michael Rennie) and Gort (Played by Lock Martin), emerge from inside the ship. Klaatu announces that they have to come to earth in peace and that he wishes to speak to world leaders about an urgent matter, but naturally the military gets jumpy after he pulls a strange device from inside his spacesuit and they shoot Klaatu. In retaliation, Gort, a massive alien robot capable of disintegrating anything in his path, turns their weapons into ash. Klaatu is rushed to a local hospital where he shocks the doctors over his rapid healing abilities. While in the hospital, the President’s secretary, Haley (Played by Frank Conroy), visits Klaatu and discusses his mission. Klaatu pleads with him to gather all the world leaders together, but Haley explains that it is too difficult to get all of them together in one place. After Haley leaves, Klaatu breaks out of the hospital and begins trying to get to know the ordinary citizens of earth. He soon arrives at a boarding house where he meets pretty World War II widow Helen Benson (Played by Patricia Neal) and her young son Bobby (Played by Billy Gray). As Klaatu spends time with Helen and Bobby, he discovers that they may be able to help him on his mission, but the press and the military are growing more and more terrified of Klaatu and Gort with each passing day.
The Day the Earth Stood Still is not the type of science fiction film that relies on tons of flashy special effects (well, flashy for 1951), elaborate martian costumes, and lengthy sequences of explosions to entertain the audience. No, The Day the Earth Stood Still is a thoughtful science fiction film, one that sends a chill through ideas rather than nonstop action. Watching the film today, one can’t help but pick up the eerie similarities between the constant fearful radiobroadcasts chattering in the background and the fear mongering news of today. Klaatu and Gort haven’t been on the ground an hour and the press has already labeled them a menace to the human race, evil men from Mars who are ready to blast earth to tiny pebbles. When they emerge from their ship and state that they have come in peace, the press grows even more skeptical, especially after the nifty Gort retaliates by firing a powerful laser from his eye. And then there is the message of world peace, a plea for every man, woman, and child to live in perfect harmony. Wise and screenwriter Edmund H. North are really asking a lot of the human race, but when we had nuclear weapons aimed at each other with thumbs twitching over the triggers, you certainly have to give them credit for trying. Wise and North make the point that we turn too quickly to violence and refuse to look at situations in a thoughtful and peaceful manner. Why debate and discuss when you have the ability to blow your enemy off the face of the earth?
While Wise and North toss around these massive ideas, the actors all bring their A-game to this science fiction chiller. Rennie is easily the standout as the Chirst-like Klaatu, a peaceful extraterrestrial that is dismayed over Arlington National Cemetery and awed over the Lincoln Memorial. Klaatu is kindhearted, warm, sharp, and when it is needed, stern with the jittery masses. His meeting with Professor Jacob Barnhardt (Played by Sam Jaffe) is certainly an exchange that will make the hair or your arm stand up. Neal is superb as Helen Benson, who slowly realizes that this strange man that has shown up at her boarding house is in fact the alien that everyone is talking about. She becomes Klaatu’s capable ally and even manages to save his life in a critical moment. Gray does the typical “gee-whiz” youngster with ease and he really shines when he takes the inquisitive Klaatu on a tour of Washington D.C. Jaffe channels a certain frizzy-haired scientist as Professor Barnhardt and Hugh Marlowe stops by as Helen’s nasty boyfriend Tom, who tries to hand Klaatu over to the dreaded military once he learns who Klaatu really is. Then there is Martin as the awesome Gort, who really only walks around slowly or stands motionless. He really doesn’t have to do much to be intimidating and his presence sends an icy chill right through you even if it is a bit obvious he is wearing a rubber suit.
With its collectively strong performances, well-spoken script, and expert direction, it is quite easy to see why The Day the Earth Stood Still has become the classic that it has. Wise, who also directed films like The Haunting, West Side Story, and The Sound of Music, shows absolutely incredible range, even if this film was released before those three classics. It just absolutely amazes me that the same man directed all of those films. The Day the Earth Stood Still also manages to be fairly creepy at points, especially when Klaatu and Gort first emerge from the UFO and the stereotypical science fiction music oozes from the soundtrack. You’ll also be surprised to learn that the film holds up to multiple viewings and the suspense remains effective, especially if it watched with all the lights off. Overall, The Day the Earth Stood Still is probably the best and most important science fiction thriller of the Atomic Age. It is essential viewing for all film fanatics, especially if you’re a fan of the horror/science fiction/B-movies. Come for Gort and stay for the chilly warning of the final five minutes. You’ll be happy you did.
The Day the Earth Stood Still is available on Blu-ray and DVD.